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Hubbard Street 2 is two things: the training company of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and its community-outreach arm. On July 20, at a free performance for elementary school kids at the Vittum Theatre, these two missions collided.

That would be a matter of indifference if education in the lively arts hadn't been largely sloughed off to performing groups. Most performances for schools aren't supplements to arts education--they are that education. And unless they're carefully programmed, and sufficient background is provided, outreach can simply persuade kids they've been right all along: the arts are difficult to decipher, snooty, and designed for someone else.

It's ironic that user-friendly Hubbard Street should spark these reflections. But because over the years the company has taken care to bring its audiences along, these days it's able to do some very complex choreography.

With outreach, though, you start at square one with every performance, a square most likely marked "Fear and Loathing of Dance Concerts." What will it take to get a particular group engaged enough to give future performances a chance? This is the Holy Grail of outreach--accessibility--and Hubbard Street 2's Vittum performance showed how complicated it is to define, much less attain.

The concert opened with Ron De Jesus's Lucid Dream, probably because it's a difficult piece and the dancers needed the practice. It's also a piece incorporating everything I hated about ballet in elementary school: soporific music, airy-fairy costumes, and--especially--overt displays of crotch that no one is supposed to notice. "Don't be so immature!" our teacher would hiss as we tittered; but I'm as mature as I'm going to get, and a dance belt still draws my eye. I'm just not ashamed of it anymore. Kids are, however, and this group whooped so hard they had to be hushed throughout the piece.

And why not? Here's a man wearing briefs that leave nothing to the imagination and a woman with her dress falling open while her legs are spread against her partner's side, and we're supposed to pretend nothing is going on? If the kids tried that themselves they'd be in trouble damn quick. And they know that, which is why they were laughing or screaming. This emperor has no clothes--and yet we teach kids they're supposed to ignore that, that it's really not about that, and that they'd be respectful if only they understood.

All right, you say, so don't program this piece for children or young adults. But there's something deeper at work here than mere carelessness: dance makers' own ambivalence about the sexual roots of their art form. It's hard to get people to share your love for something when that love is tinged with shame. But what choice do American dance companies have? Our Puritan roots have produced not only veneration of work but horror of sexuality, and of dancing as its surrogate. ("Why did the Puritans frown on premarital sex?"--"They thought it led to dancing.") Either companies bury the sexual component or they find themselves ostracized by high culture--"high" meaning "above the waist."

I used to think it was dancers' quest for respectability that kept audiences away from the form. "Serious" dance can be so elaborate and complex and intellectual it manages to obscure that it's half-naked people simulating sex. I thought dance's obscurity was the problem, and that if you just told people it was about sex they'd come running.

But watching the kids watch Hubbard Street made me suspect that sex is not the solution but the problem. The folk, swing, and jazz forms that flourish in Chicago, though sometimes more blatantly sexual than concert dance ("jazz," after all, originally meant "fuck"), are perceived as less so if only because they're generally performed in street clothes or "ethnic" garb. Many such dances represent courting, but there's a big difference between courting and mating: one is touching to watch while the other is embarrassing. So when we say these popular dances are accessible, at least part of what we mean is "watchable without blushing."

What determines whether something is watchable without blushing is whether it's being done on the street and in clubs today. That explains why the kids at the Vittum stopped chortling and began to clap along when the company presented Kristofer Storey's I Wantchu Kool, Cuz U Blow My Mind (done to the Beatles' "I Want You," covered by Bobby McFerrin). It's choreographed in the overtly sexual vocabulary of current popular dance, with lots of hip swiveling and posturing. But to a roomful of six- and eight- and ten-year-olds it's familiar--just background noise. The dancers weren't doing anything or wearing anything that the kids haven't seen on MTV.

So familiarity is the first step toward appreciation. But accessibility requires carrying the audience beyond that first step to the hard stuff. And here's where our current system breaks down. No one goes straight to Nureyev: my odyssey took me from Gene Kelly to West Side Story to other Jerome Robbins dances to work by his mentor, George Balanchine--and voila! I'm a dance fan despite the occasional boring concert at school. No single experience or company could have arranged that progression, however. Likewise, if we're to guide today's novices from Britney Spears to Balanchine, someone has to think through the route.

It's not actually a very long trip, as Hubbard Street 2 demonstrated with Francisco Avila's Dynamic Trio. The Vittum kids cheered as three dancers in hooded black sweats responded with individual hip-hop moves to the discordant 12 Monkeys sound track, then took a gang strut straight out of West Side Story toward the audience. "Us against the world" is an irresistible theme to young people, and now that they've seen Avila play it out they're ready for West Side Story itself--or maybe Balanchine's street ballet Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. But how are kids supposed to get from here to there? Hubbard Street 2 can't take them--this concert was a one-shot deal, and in any case those dances aren't in its repertoire.

Accessibility is also a moving target: what's child's play for the middle-aged may not speak to actual children. When Hubbard Street 2 presented its signature piece, Lou Conte's The 40s, most kids' eyes glazed over. This piece represents to me (and doubtless to the company) the Platonic ideal of dance everyone can understand. But the kids' indifference showed that you can't talk about accessibility without asking "accessible to whom?" To people born in 1994, references to top hats and white tie and tails are as foreign as the vocabulary of classical dance.

Making such references clear requires actual arts education, not mere exposure wrung from performers who might justly have other things on their minds. But because grants are more readily available for arts outreach than for art itself, many nonprofit groups spend a significant chunk of time presenting themselves to audiences who may or may not be interested in, or prepared for, what they have to offer. I admire Great Beast Theater's pronouncement on the subject in their mission statement: We're not educators, and we won't trivialize their work by playing at it. As artists, our best community service is to do our art.

Hubbard Street 2 does make a good faith effort to educate: choosing a child from the audience to choreograph a piece based on moves she'd seen during the concert worked wonderfully. As the volunteer chose four of the six dancers, the outcasts mugged--not being chosen is something every kid can relate to. The dancers tried out various combinations under the girl's critical eye, then moved in unison from a leap to a twirl to a little sliding step offstage. The kids yelled their approval of what one of them had wrought--and the dancers repeated the sequence.

But combining an exercise like that with a few dances that appear to need rehearsal is neither the most efficient way to train young dancers nor the best way to cultivate new audiences. More careful programming can enhance accessibility, but it's not a panacea. No single company or scattershot series can make up for our failure to think about--and pay for--a coordinated program of arts education.

Some people derided Leonard Bernstein for the televised young people's concerts that introduced boomers to classical music, calling him "the Village Explainer." But some sort of village-wide explaining is imperative if we want new audiences to be attracted rather than repelled. Under the current system, those of us who care about the arts will find ourselves increasingly isolated, shouting in Turkish to a roomful of Danes and wondering why we go unheeded.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/William Frederking.

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